Live from JDAI: Day Two of Juvenile Justice Conference Week

Day two from the Valley of the Sun, which is living up to its name. It’s 102 degrees today, 108 tomorrow. That doesn’t even sound like a real temperature it could be on Earth. Click here for our account of day one, including our take on a powerful new documentary.

Day two started, as always, with the JDAI State of the Union. For the first time, that address was delivered by someone not named Bart Lubow. Nate Balis, who now heads the Casey Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, took his first turn as the conference’s grand orator.

(Lubow was still the first voice heard at this conference; he moderated yesterday’s discussion following the screening of “Children of the Dumping Ground.”)

YSI mentioned yesterday that the agenda for the conference felt like the first step toward merging Casey’s interests in detention reform and reducing the number of youths committed to incarceration facilities.

Balis’ address, in our opinion, was crafted to both confirm that and tamp down any angst about it. Casey would be working with a fresh slate of states on deep-end reform, he said. Meanwhile, much of the training and technical assistance on detention reform has been handed off to longtime Casey partners like the Burns Institute, Pretrial Justice Institute, and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.

But Balis assured the crowd of 900-plus that Casey’s interest in post-adjudication reform was not going to become a caveat of JDAI participation.

“Casey has not abandoned the detention focus of JDAI,” he said. “We are not in any way setting the expectation that sites follow us on this new journey.”

So how is JDAI detention work going? The foundation tracks that, on aggregate, by comparing recent-year figures to the baseline year for any site.

On that metric, the average population is down 42 percent, and admissions are down 43 percent. There are a cumulative 80,000 fewer youth admitted to detention now than there were in the aggregated baseline years.

The proliferation of the initiative is also at its peak. In the early 2000s, the addition of a state to JDAI yielded two new sites (usually counties) on average. That figure has jumped to eight.

Balis did note, however, an uptick in average daily population when calculating only the past three years at sites. Not cause for alarm, he said, “but certainly something to take note of.”

YSI checked out a session on risk assessment tools and “override” processes that we will devote a separate column soon. Here are a smattering of thoughts from the rest of the day:

Stay Awhile…But Not a Long While

Jessica Feierman of the Juvenile Law Center snagged the best laugh of the day at a session about the appropriate length of stay in juvenile facilities. She told the audience that JLC had conducted a 50-state study to determine trends in how systems determine the length of sentences to juvenile facilities, and then flipped to a PowerPoint slide with one word on it:

WHATEVER.

In most states, the majority of juveniles committed to correctional facilities do not arrive with any indication of how long the youth needs to be there. The few states that had any statute, she said, set limits of two years.

Indiana juvenile justice boss and co-presenter, Michael Dempsey, said he usually has full discretion with a few judges setting minimums of two years for their most serious offenders.

About 20 percent (13,000) of juveniles who are locked up stay in for more than six months, and about 2,000 remain behind bars for over two years, according to national data from 2011.

The discussion today comes about two months after new research suggesting that length of stay has no bearing on the propensity of juvenile offenders to reoffend after release.

“If we think [incarceration] is the right placement for the right kid, we have to ask what right dosage is,” said Tom Woods, a member of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “Until recently, the research hasn’t had much to say.”

Janet Van Cuyk of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice said leadership was taken aback by how out of whack its confinement trends were once it worked with Casey to develop some data. Five comparable states locked juveniles up for an average of nine months; Virginia clocked in at 18 months.

And those lengthy stays were yielding some miserable results. Rearrest rates for DJJ wards was 46.3 percent after 12 months, and 74.5 percent after three years.

The solution, Van Cuyk said, was to establish a grid of approved confinement periods based on offenses and individual risk profiles. The grid tops out at 15 months, with an override exception for juveniles in need of inpatient sex offender treatment.

A piece of advice from Van Cuyk: make sure to involve all parties early on. The process of selling everyone on the new sanctions was a bear, and then was almost derailed when prosecutors felt they hadn’t been included in developing them.

Today’s Specialty

The official JDAI position on juvenile drug courts and other specialty courts is sort of “meh” leaning on “nah.” Participation in specialty court programs usually requires an admission of guilt and often requires a placement in detention or confinement if the youth reoffends.

But it hosted an open discussion on specialty courts this afternoon out of acknowledgment that many of its sites do operate them. In particular, Casey leadership seemed impressed with a specialty court developed in Dallas to deal solely with minority males charged with felonies.

Here’s the thing: It’s not really a specialty court, it’s a pilot project. Those youths are offered the same diversion program as all misdemeanants in the county. But through the standard court process, juveniles charged with felonies are not permitted into diversion.

Terry Smith, executive director of Dallas County Juvenile Services, needed a way to demonstrate that the county could safely divert some juveniles accused of felonies and produce good results. So she established a “DMC (Diversionary Male Court)” to work around that.

If the powers that be allowed for felony diversions, she said, she would close the specialty court that day.

So what about actual specialty courts? It was hard to really find many truly supportive points in their favor. One attendee from Alabama pointed out that her local drug court connected youths so that they had other friends to hang with that had to stay clean, providing them an alternative to hanging with friends who might tempt them.

Another plus mentioned by a few attendees: the judges frequently would hold hearings in the evening so families could attend together, and many handled those hearings in a less formal setting; no robes, sitting around a table.

The criticisms came fast:

-They sap costs by requiring separate judge time, bailiffs, guardians, and in some cases late operating hours. Specialty courts also frequently have an extra probation officer attached to them.

-Nobody really disputed the fact that the little research on juvenile drug courts shows them to be ineffective.

-There is virtually no research on other juvenile specialty courts.

-They mostly are born of grant money that won’t last.

-Drug courts rarely handle the youths with serious addiction struggles.

-They frequently require youth to be court-involved for far longer than standard probation terms.

The best comment, in our opinion, came from a young woman who wondered why we deal with mental health or substance abuse issues in court at all, when they are pretty clearly public health issues?

It’s the same question prompted by Karen Grau’s documentary, “Children of the Dumping Ground,” which was screened yesterday. Can we realistically expect the juvenile court to competently address public health problems?

That’s it from Phoenix! YSI is headed to Pittsburgh to catch some of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services Symposium. More tomorrow!

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.